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Will wireless catch on?

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 29, 2002
(Issue 2048, Wireless Wonders)

For the past few years, the hot buzz in the tech press has been the coming age of Wireless.

While the old-timers wonder what all the fuss is about — after all, didn't they listen to President Roosevelt's fireside chats on the wireless all those years ago? — the rest of us wonder whether the engineers haven't gotten too far ahead of the rest of us.

It's only recently that a home computer has truly started becoming thought of us a necessity — another appliance like the refrigerator or television.

And even at that, something like one-fifth of all homes in the United States has no computer.

Shocking though it may be to some in the geek brigade, only about three-fourths of all homes have Internet access (which also means that some homes have PCs but no Internet account).

So the current media hype about wireless Internet access may be a bit premature.

Market resistance

The engineers have done an incredible job both on the hardware and connectivity issues surrounding wireless devices and Internet access. The newest cell phones coming out now are basically miniature computers that happen to have cellular telephony capability as well. Not only can the latest cell phones access and display your e-mail for you, but they can even browse the web and download multimedia files.

If you're willing to pay for it, that is.

The price of wireless connectivity is high — and the phones and other wireless devices (PDAs, palmtops) with the capability to access the Internet aren't cheap, either.

There's even been a huge slowdown in sales of wireless devices — leading manufacturers like Palm to release new low-end models to try to get the masses to buy into the concept.

So far, not many are.

And until sales of wireless devices reach that hard-to-determine critical mass, we won't see the lower prices that can drive further sales.

Future looks bright

But if we look to the history of the personal computer, we can see that wireless devices may well become as ubiquitous as the PC itself — in another decade or so.

As the 1990s opened, fewer than half of all homes had a personal computer. It wasn't that the machines weren't capable — even then, engineers and software programmers had done a remarkable job of making personal computers powerful and easy to use.

Next time you visit the Computer Museum of America in downtown San Diego, look at a late-'80s vintage Amiga, Mac or Atari. Today's Windows XP and Mac OSX are little changed from the desktop operating systems of those vintage machines.

What those PCs didn't have was the Internet — the so-called killer app that drove sales as parents became concerned their kids would fall behind if they didn't have access to it.

And there's also the innate human tendency to wait and see if the latest fad will become indispensable. Nearly every household appliance has taken a few decades to really catch on. The phonograph, radio, refrigerators, washing machines, television, microwave ovens, the VCR — every one was introduced to big hoopla, followed by a a lag until full market penetration was reached.

Technical issues remain

And there are a few glitches to be worked out. For instance, if you have a cable modem or DSL, spam e-mail isn't so much a concern. But if you're paying for your wireless Internet connection by the minute, and it's only 56kbps or so, suddenly spam isn't so acceptable.

Clearly, better spam filters are going to be needed before we see mass acceptance of per-minute connection charges.

It still seems likely that wireless will catch on, though. While the engineers have on occasion miscalculated on the demand for their technology (how many folks use voice recognition software, for instance?), wireless is simply an extension of what we do now — only easier, more portable, and, eventually, more affordable.